Coal is abundant, accessible and easy to transport, so it’s been a fuel of choice since well before the industrial revolution. With the link between climate change and air pollution now clear, this choice needs to be challenged. However, if we’re aspiring to reduce or eliminate coal use, we need to get a handle on what it’s used for.
A coal-fired power station is an image that typically springs to mind when considering the coal consumption. But electricity generation in New Zealand uses less coal than industry does.
Coal is a part of manufacturing many of the things that we use and consume: it provides heat and is a source of high-quality carbon.
Steel is one of the most ubiquitous materials in modern life. We drive in it, reinforce our buildings with it and even use it to wash our dishes. You need extreme heat and carbon to turn iron ore into steel, and coal is a ready supply of both. Steel recycling doesn’t require the carbon, but it uses electrical current that’s generated somehow.
In New Zealand coal is used to make heat for industries as varied as meat, dairy, cement, lime and plaster manufacturing. For example, furnaces that burn at 1450ºC are needed to make the cement that binds some of our biggest structures.
Coal is also in places most people wouldn’t imagine. Activated carbon (used as filters for water and air purification systems) and carbon fibre (strong, lightweight reinforcing martial used in bikes, tennis racquets) are manufactured from coal. Many soaps, aspirins, solvents, dyes, plastics and fibres (like rayon and nylon) also contain coal or coal by-products.
There are alternatives to coal. For instance, electricity generated from renewable resources could be used to run furnaces and wood/plant products are a high-quality carbon alternative. But at present these cost more than the abundant, accessible coal.
Coal is a primary link in the chain that brings us cheap cars, cities of large buildings, and homes filled with appliances. As we learn to count environmental costs, we need to consider the whole system. And if we the people want industry to use the alternatives, we the consumers need to be prepared to pay for the difference and perhaps also face up to consuming less.
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